Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: God's mercy. (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A)

When you get a chance and if you are interested I invite you to google “tree climbing goats of Morocco”.  I once stumbled across this and was really kind of mesmerized.  At first you might think that the pictures of these goats perched on extremely small branches of trees are doctored, I know I did, but they are not.  If you go to YouTube you will see videos of these goats climbing up into the trees, moving around and balancing on the branches and then scampering down.  The story is that there is a berry that these trees produce that the goats crave and over time they have adapted and developed the ability to climb the trees in order to get at the berries.  That being understood, the image of all these goats standing on branches in a tree is surreal – two very ordinary things (goats and trees) brought together in a totally unexpected way.  It makes you do a double-take when you see it and even question your perception. 
The parables of our Lord operate in a similar way I believe.  Our Lord takes common, everyday realities that we are all familiar with (maybe even take for granted) and then puts a spin on them that leaves the listener doing a mental double-take and re-evaluating ones perception of things.  Similar to seeing goats perched in a tree.  Take for example this Sunday’s parable (Mt. 20:1-16).  We can easily imagine the landowner and the laborers.  We understand what work is and what it means to give someone a fair wage for a fair day’s work.  But then there is this “spin” at the end.  Those laborers who worked only one hour get paid the same amount as those who put in a full day’s work.  And we are left with the response of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
What is helpful to realize is that this parable is not about us.  It is about God.  God’s justice is his mercy.  In Isaiah we hear God proclaim, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Is. 55:6-9).  
In this parable our Lord is not giving us a lesson on social justice nor is he presenting us with an image of the just boss.  Rather, he presents us with an absolutely exceptional person, who treats those under him beyond the bounds of any legalistic rules. The parable shows us how the Father acts - his kindness, his magnanimousness, and his mercy, which are as far from the human way of thinking as heaven is from earth. 
It is very easy to be cynical about all this, to roll one’s eyes at the Christian talk of mercy.  The cynic easily says, “Let’s get real; enough of this fairy-tale talk!”  Cynicism is indeed one of the besetting sins of our age which often dismissively equates mercy with naivety but cynicism is often really just a cover for fear.  The Christian mystery is not a puzzle to be solved and then set aside, allowing a sense of accomplishment and superiority for the cynic, rationalist and materialist.  The Christian mystery is a mystery to be lived and as we live it we are then brought to greater understanding and greater hope and joy.  And it takes courage and trust to live the mystery.  
So Isaiah doesn’t say “Figure it out!” rather he says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.”  Then he gets really personal, “…scoundrel, wicked … you forsake your way, your thoughts ... turn to the Lord for mercy…”  God owes us nothing except by his choice which is his mercy.  Rather than trying to fit God into our sense of fairness it would be better for us to wonder on God’s mercy.  
The parable is about God and how his justice is his mercy and it teaches us that when we labor for him, as we are each called to do in our own way and according to our current season in life, then we will know the great reward of his mercy.  It is a great reward.  God is unjust with no one and neither is he senseless.  God does not give according to some abstract notion of equity, rather he gives to each of his children according to his or her need.  God’s justice is his mercy. 
“Seek the Lord while he may be found…”  Encounter God and his mercy.  Live the mystery and know the life and the generous mercy that overcomes all the cynicism and sad logic of our world.
“…am I not free to do as I wish … Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Prior to the gospel passage we just heard proclaimed (Jn. 3:13-17), we are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”.  Nicodemus is a religious leader of his day and therefore a powerful and respected man in his society.  Even though Nicodemus can recognize and acknowledge that Jesus is a “teacher come from God” he still does not want to be seen visiting this strange new teacher who had just run out the money-changers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-22).  Nicodemus is fearful for his stature and his reputation in the society of his day.  Even though something about Jesus attracts him, Nicodemus’ faith is darkened by fear so it is telling on many levels that he comes to our Lord “by night”. 
Fear always darkens our lives.  Fear always darkens faith and fear always seeks to overshadow hope.  The exaltation of the Holy Cross, even in the stark violence of the sacrifice offered, stands in witness against fear in all its forms.  The cross banishes the darkness of fear precisely because it reveals the love of the Father.  A love so amazing that the Father permits the sacrifice of the Son in order to satisfy the demand of justice!  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
It is in and through the triumph of the Cross and Resurrection that Christians can say “no” to the sad logic of violence, oppression and fear.  In the exaltation of the Cross, we can say that peace, reconciliation and forgiveness are always possible.  In some ways it seems counter-intuitive that a means of violent execution becomes the sign of hope; but this is God’s logic – a logic that overcomes all the supposed logic and understanding of our world.
In my prayer this week, my thoughts have kept returning to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, who are facing the very real threat of martyrdom for their faith in Christ.  Many have already been martyred, some through very violent and barbaric acts.  We often think of the age of the martyrs as a period of early Christian history but in the twentieth century alone more Christian were killed for their faith than at any other time in history.  Sadly, the trend seems to be continuing in this century.  These men and women facing the full onslaught of violence witness the wisdom and hope that can only come through embracing the cross of Christ! 
When I was in seminary I received some advice on preaching that has remained with me to this day.  I was told that when I preach I should not worry about having to review all of salvation history in one homily rather I should concern myself simply with saying something that invites people to prayer.  So, I will end this homily with a direct invitation to prayer: sometime on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross go before a crucifix whether it is here in the church, whether at home, whether an image you pull up on the internet, whether in your mind’s eye.  Place yourself before the cross, imagine Christ looking on you with love and reflect on the love revealed on the cross, receive that love and allow it to banish any fears that you might be carrying in your life.  The logic of the cross, God’s logic, overcomes all the fears and sad divisions and violence of our world.  And, in a special way, pray for our brothers and sisters who are facing persecution and death for their love of Christ. 


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: God's Strange Economics (Twenty-Third Sunday, A)

The Catholic writer and speaker Fr. Robert Barron begins a session in one of his video series by stating, “You are not necessary!  Neither you nor I are necessary!”  I have often thought that this would make for an ironic hallmark card.  On the front cover – “You are not necessary!” – and inside – “Have a nice day!”  But Fr. Barron is not being flippant in this; rather he is stating an important spiritual truth.  None of us, none of creation, everything that we see and discover around us – none of it is necessary.  All of it continually flows from God.  God alone is the one necessary; everything else from the largest galaxy to most finite speck of dust is dependent upon God and therefore not necessary. 
Whoa … this is heavy and it can quickly weigh heavy on one’s mind and life.  If all is dependent upon God then what happens if I really, really make him mad?  Does he need to be appeased?  Do I need to do absolutely correct every little thing that I think God wants done?  God seems then to be opposed to my thriving.  God, who alone is necessary, almost seems to be in competition with my freedom. 
This would be valid (Fr. Barron continues) were it not for one thing; “God is love,” writes St. John.  God is not the biggest unnecessary thing among other unnecessary things.  God is not the biggest part of creation among other parts of creation.  If these were indeed the case then yes, God’s presence would necessarily hinder my freedom, my thriving.  One limited thing always hinders, always limits another limited thing.  God is not one thing among other things; God is the source of all things and this source is love!  The presence of God in a person’s life does not hinder one’s freedom nor does the presence of God compete with one’s thriving because there is no competition! 
The quicker we learn this truth the better for us and the more easily we begin to grasp God’s economics.
No one likes debt.  I know that I don’t.  We want to be free of debt.  We work our whole lives to pay off debts – house, car, college – that we might one day be finally free of the weight of any debt.  In God’s economics there is a debt that we all carry, it can never be paid off and instead of denying life it brings life.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:8-10) writes these words, “Brothers and sisters, owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  We are all bound by the debt of love for one another, love for the stranger and even love for the enemy.  What a strange economics where debt brings life but when we live the debt of love then we, who are not necessary, participate in that which is necessary - the very nature and life of God!  
There is another component to the strange economics of God.  In this strange economics sacrifice displays wealth.  In God’s economics a large house, the latest gadgets, big toys (things which are not bad in and of themselves) are not the primary signs of success and wealth.  The surest sign of wealth in God’s economics is the willingness to sacrifice, the willingness to let go of self.  Authentic sacrifice is rooted in love for the other.  Parents sacrifice unreservedly for their children then, near the end of the journey of life, children have the opportunity to sacrifice unreservedly in love for their parents.  It may not appear on the cover of Fortune 500 but, in God’s economics, the surest display of wealth is sacrifice.  
The prophet Ezekiel tells us that we are to be watchmen (and women).  Part of being a watchman or woman in our day and age is to set our lives by God’s economics.  I think our Lord in today’s gospel (Mt. 18:15-20) invites us to carry this economics even into our dealings with one another in community and in family.  In God’s strange economics we all carry the debt of love and sacrifice witnesses to wealth. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fr. Michael's "How to be Happy" list

Recently I have noticed lists going around the social media-sphere regarding how to cultivate happiness in life.  I have decided to jump on the bandwagon.  Here is my list as of August 27, 2014 in no particular order.  What would be on your list?
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Smile and laugh.
  • Say “Thank you.”
  • Pet and speak to dogs, cats and animals you may come across.
  • Feed the birds.
  • Go outside when you can.
  • Use natural sunlight as much as possible.
  • Hum or whistle. 
  • Say “yes” when you can, say “no” when it is appropriate.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Stand straight.
  • Be curious – ask questions.
  • Read.
  • Always learn.
  • Enjoy friends.     
  • Pray.
  • Exercise but don’t care about how you look.
  • Eat well.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Read the Bible and talk with God. 
  • Talk with the elderly, hold babies and play with children.
  • Plant and tend something.
  • Notice the poor, care about others and help them as you are able.
  • Recognize that you are only asked to do what you can and leave the rest to God and others.    

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: "Who do you say that I am?" (Twenty-First Sunday - A)

The Gospel passage we have heard (Mt. 16:13-20) is known as “the text regarding the primacy of Peter.” Yet, it is a Gospel passage that goes well beyond the theological debates of Peter’s primacy and questions the faith of each one of us. 

There are a number of lessons to be learned from today's gospel.  As we reflect on this passage it is helpful to recognize the context in which it occurs.  After feeding the multitude and curing many people our Lord finds himself practically alone.  The crowd seems to be present when there is the possibility of healing from illness and when there is food to be had but then the crowd dwindles.  In a sense, our Lord, in this passage is left almost defeated.  After having so many people around and trying to make them into the People of God, he is now left alone - only with his small group of disciples.  Here is an important point to remember - the ways of God are not our ways.  God will not force his Kingdom.  Christ will usher in the Kingdom of God not through our world's understanding of power, success and accomplishment but according to God's terms nor will Christ usher in the Kingdom by seeking to cater to our every whim or entertain us with the latest fade.  Christ will always be authentic to himself, the Kingdom and the will of the Father. 

So, after the crowds have dwindled away, our Lord turns to this small and less-than-perfect grouping of disciples and asks, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  Then, he looks directly to them and asks, "Who do you say that I am?"  Our Lord is seeking to move this small band of followers beyond the limits of the world's thought (in this case, the awaited messiah as a military leader and conqueror) into the truth of the Kingdom of God.  Will they be able to follow a crucified Messiah?  If they are to be his disciples they must begin to grasp the ways and the movements of God's Kingdom.  

Peter, speaking for the community of disciples, responds, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father."  There is an important spiritual lesson here - Peter was not perfect when he made this proclamation of truth.  In fact, in the very next chapter Peter rebukes our Lord and is himself reprimanded.  "Get behind me Satan!  You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do!"  The lesson is this: in the life of faith it is more important to cling to Jesus rather than to seek to make ourselves perfect in the hopes of winning his acknowledgement and love or (another temptation) to present ourselves as perfect in the eyes of others.  (Christians who pretend to be perfect are like church buildings that have no windows; there might be a nice fa├žade outside but within there is no light, no grace.)  We forget this all the time.  We want to have everything "perfect" - nice and neat - before we invite Jesus in.  Jesus does not expect everything to be perfect.  He just wants to be invited in!  Just let him in and then, by his presence, all will begin to be healed!

When we allow Jesus in, when, in our heart, we are able to proclaim, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God…," we gain the true power of the keys of the Kingdom - the power to "loose" and to "bind".  With Christ present, we gain the ability to loosen the bonds that hold us tight to our selfishness, our own love of self, our hurts, our petty indifferences and grudges.  These are the bonds that make us violent and like a slave.  When we let Christ in we learn to bind ourselves to that which gives true life - friendship, solidarity, integrity and service.  We bind ourselves to the ways of the Kingdom. 

In and through Christ, whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  Whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven

“Who do you say that I am?” is not some intellectual exercise that our Lord throws out there to test us.  Rather, it is an invitation which our Lord extends to each one of us.  It is an invitation to welcome Christ ever anew into our lives and into our hearts, that we might know life and become life for others. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: "...but all we have" (Eighteenth Sunday - A)

“…dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”  (Mt. 14:13-21)  It is a reasonable request, even considerate but God’s Kingdom is about more than our sense of propriety.  Christ wants to bring his disciples into a fuller way of viewing situations and living in our world.  “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” 
Christ knows that there is no one so poor that they cannot give something.  It is not so much the quantity of giving that matters as it is the quality of giving.  “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”  “Bring them here to me,” responds our Lord.  
We look at the violence and pain in our world, maybe even in our own lives, we look at the isolation, the fear and the hatred, we consider our own weaknesses, maybe our own sense of unworthiness and it is easy to say, “But, all we have…”
There is no one so poor that they cannot give something.  
“All I have are some old clothes and some used furniture.”  Well, for a week now I have watched cars and trucks deliver such items to our parish life center to the point where the space now looks like a department store.  I am told that for five hours next Saturday in a chaotic frenzy of shopping thousands will be raised to support ministries within our parish and local community, especially those that will aid the poor.  “All I have is some free time,” but in that little time communion and companionship can be brought to a sick or elderly brother or sister.  “All I have is a desire to live the faith and share the faith.”  Our young people need mentors and teachers; people willing to demonstrate what it looks like to be a Christian in our world today.  We see the violence and injustice in our world, we might even experience it or witness it firsthand; all we might have is the ability to not cooperate in this, walk away, and maybe even speak a word of truth and love.  We see a brother or sister in pain, all we might have is the ability to listen.    
“But all we have…”  “Bring them here to me,” says our Lord.  There is no one so poor that they cannot give something.  
For full disclosure I must admit that even though I shared about next Saturday’s parish rummage sale and all the good it does, I am going to be out of town when the chaos occurs.  It is not intentional, although I must admit I am not necessarily heart-broken.  Next weekend I will be in South Bend, Indiana to witness a wedding.  The groom is a friend of mine from the Boston Community of Sant’Egidio.  He is at Notre Dame finishing up his doctoral studies in Scripture.  The bride works at a Christian Community Development Corporation.  The reason I share about them is that in our last discussion they said that, even though they do not have much, they want their wedding and their marriage to be an expression of God’s love in our world.  “All we have is our love and our faith,” they are saying.  “Bring them here to me,” our Lord responds.  Christ will bless what they have to offer and my hunch is that our Lord will bring life to many through the love of Brian and Beth.  
Our Lord invites us to look in a different way at the very real problems and pains of our world and our lives.  It is very easy to look at the immensity of it all and throw up our hands and say, “But all we have…”  Our Lord says, “But you do have something, bring it here to me.”  
There is no one so poor that they cannot give something.  And in giving, life is found.      

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: Choices and Consequences (Seventeenth Sunday - A)

Yes, we are free to make our choices but no one of us is free to deny the consequences of our choices.  We like the first part but we often do our best, individually and collectively, to deny the reality of the second half.  But all choices have consequences whether for good or for ill, whether immediate or some time “down the road”.  No person can escape the consequences of his or her actions. 

The key, for the person of faith, is to not only to choose for the Kingdom in a particular circumstance but to also develop the ingrained habit/discipline of choosing for the Kingdom.  I think that our choices are at the heart of the images that our Lord gives us regarding our relation to the kingdom of heaven in this Sunday’s gospel (Mt. 13:44-52).
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a “treasure buried in a field” which, when once found, a person then sells all that he has in order to buy the field.  Or the kingdom is like a fine pearl which, again, a person goes and sells all that he has in order to buy it.  In both of these images the person makes a radical and extreme choice.  They sell everything, they let go off everything in order to acquire this one treasure!  Nothing is more important.  Reputation, security, wealth, relationships, advancement – they just don’t compare.  They do not matter in light of this one great treasure!
This is the choice for the Kingdom of God and there are consequences. 
…the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea … what is good (goes into buckets). What is bad is thrown away.  Thus it will be at the end of the age. 
All choices have consequences.  When we make the choice for the Kingdom, for God, for what is right – even if in the most trying of circumstances, even if not applauded but derided, even if in the face of persecution – we gain life.  The life of the Kingdom of God grows within us.  
In our first reading (1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12) Solomon was also faced with a choice.  God says to the young king, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”  Solomon could have asked for anything and God knows this.  Solomon, aware of his role as a young king, asks, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and distinguish right from wrong.”  Solomon is blessed in his choice because he made a choice for the Kingdom of God.  He did not choose for himself – to build up his ego, his wealth or his power – rather, he made a choice for others – he asked for wisdom that he might serve and govern God’s people well and justly.  In so doing, Solomon mirrored the reality of God who is love who pours himself out for all of his creation and Solomon was blessed.  Life grew within him.
Yes, we are free to make our choices but no one of us is free to deny the consequences of our choices.  Our choices can help, our choices can heal!  Our Lord invites us to continually, in all situations and seasons, make the choice for the kingdom - that we might be blessed and have life within us and that his kingdom might continually grow in order to heal the pains and wounds of our world. 
The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s request and said to him, “Because you have asked for this – not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you might know what is right – I do as you requested.”